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October 21, 2012

I have consistently searched the VHS sections of all op shops I have visited for years in search of Gift, the 1993 film made by Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction and his partner Casey Niccoli. I’d watched it many times in the 1990s but no longer had the tape of it, and while I could have bought a used VHS copy on Amazon, I like having an op shop quest. The longer the quest took, the greater my desire to watch Gift grew. The film is compelling to me for many reasons, but most of all because it was the fantasy of Perry and Casey, with only a tangential relationship to Jane’s Addiction. It is a dark, weird, film, at some points embarrassingly amateur, with a narrative that seesaws between linear and surreal.

When I scanned the op shop shelves, past multiple copies of Dirty Dancing – every op shop has at least one copy – I was looking for a black cover with a pattern of little charms, keys and horseshoes, hearts and flowers. The blurb on the back of the case described Gift as “A story of love. A man and a woman’s final night together”. While this description is accurate, I doubt anyone could guess from it the details of the story, which included graphic scenes of heroin use and necrophilia. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything by giving away some of the plot, as probably anyone who is going to be interested in seeing this film has already seen it.

Casey Niccoli was the envy of 90s alterna girls, with her long purple braids and pale, beautiful face. She was the lover and creative muse of the equally desireable Perry Farrell, as well as an artist in her own right. I’d stay up to watch Rage and stare deeply into the video clip for the Jane’s Addiction song “Classic Girl”, which showed Perry and Casey getting married in a Santerian wedding in Mexico. Every detail, from the egg rolled over Casey’s forehead at the start of the video (to purify them of evil), to their eventual plunge into the swampy lake water in trails of ceremonial smoke, I stored in my repository of details for a fantasy life. In this life I had the same lunar beauty as Casey, and my goth boyfriend and I would take part in rituals like cutting our wrists and pressing them together to prove our love, something that made a particular impression upon me as a teenager.

Perry and I kind of became one person. We shared each other’s clothes. If I put on a dress and he liked it, then I had to take it off so he could wear it for a gig. He stretched out all my lingerie. (Casey Niccoli in an interview for Details, 1997)

The Classic Girl filmclip was an excerpt from Gift, and many of the scenes that cut in between those of the wedding are from the film. Gift’s basic premise is that one night, while Perry is out recording with Jane’s Addiction, Casey overdoses on heroin and dies. When he returns later that night, bunch of daisies picked from a front garden sagging in his lace-gloved hand, he discovers her dead. “No God Casey no oh God no,” he moans, and always at this point in the film, no matter how many times I’ve watched it, I felt a shiver of awareness that this was two people, at the height of their mutual love and obsession with each other, acting out a fantasy. While at the end of the film a screen flashes up purporting the persons and event shown in the film to be ficticious, it is more than obvious that the couple are playing themselves.

As well as a love story between two people, it is also a love story about heroin. The film starts with Perry and Casey driving their white Cadilliac through the back streets of Los Angeles, looking to score, and the film abounds with graphic drug use. Though it is romanticised – a beautiful goth girl in the red and black cave of day of the dead art and religious iconography that is her house, melting heroin in a spoon over a candle flame – it is equally nauseating. In one flashback scene in which Casey is on the phone pleading for money, it cuts to an image of her  standing naked, her arms and legs covered in blisters, sores and scars from injecting, and all of a sudden she doesn’t look so beautiful anymore. In another scene, Perry and Casey visit a dodgy doctor who proceeds to write them prescriptions for anything they ask for. Their at times wooden acting is much more natural in this scene as they lose themselves in the fantasy of being able to request as many choral hydrates and as much liquid valium as they like.

All this was thrilling to me as a teenager: their shared fantasy, their beautiful cluttered apartment, the shrine Perry makes around Casey’s body when he lays her out after the most notorious scene in the film, when, after he finds her body, he drags her to the shower and makes love to her there. The R rating on the video cover, for “drug use and adult themes”, didn’t seem to cover half of it.

One of the reasons I was searching for a VHS copy of Gift was because it  wasn’t yet, and still hasn’t been, released on DVD. A few vague statements by Perry Farrell over the years have indicated it will be released at some point, but given its content, I can imagine not wanting to re-release it into the world. Perry and Casey split before the film premiered in Los Angeles in 1993; Casey attended the premiere alone. I can only imagine what it would have been like to watch a film about the shared world you had with someone else, knowing that it was over. Like her imagined death in the film, Casey disappeared into near obscurity after her split with Perry, her image only resurfacing in the teenage scrapbook land of Tumblr and occasional devotional blog posts. Her image has persisted, despite her retreat from the spotlight in the early 1990s. Sculptures of her are the cover art for Jane’s Addiction’s two more influential albums, Nothing’s Shocking, and Ritual de lo Habitual. And she is central to Gift, a film with a true cult following. In the comments about the film online, people write about their treasured VHS copies, a few even stating they kept their VCR players just to watch this one film.

I eventually found a copy of Gift at Surry Hills Vinnies. I had visualised it so many times that to actually discover it felt unreal, a feeling which soon gave way to immense satisfaction: anything I need, the op shop will provide. After returning home with my prize, I watched it immediately. As with all of the films I watched on repeat as a teenager, the dialogue played along in my head as I watched it, still stored somewhere in my brain. Casey still looked as beautiful and cool as ever, and still a small part of me wanted lavender braids and a chicken named Graziella for a pet, and a house with a decorating scheme of lamps and virgin Marys.

One particular scene I liked but had forgotten about was when Perry walks down to Venice Beach. We see him strolling along the boardwalk, walking alone until a man on rollerblades wearing robes and a turban, strumming an electric guitar, appears and sings a song in a high, tense voice about “a message, a message, from another world” This, I found out from scrutinising the tiny print in the song credit at the end of the film, was a Venice Beach character called Harry Perry.

About a month ago, I was in Los Angeles. Casey was probably somewhere in the city, as was Perry, as were all the movie stars and rock stars I know so much about and have no chance of ever coming across in real life. But there was one person I knew I had a good chance of meeting.

Steph and I started at one end of the Venice Beach Boardwalk, on the lookout for the sikh on rollerblades. It was a Sunday afternoon and the boardwalk was thick with people. We walked past stalls selling the ugliest art known to humanity, the occasional eccentric holding signs encouraging people to follow them on Twitter, and endless souvenir stores and medical marijuana clinics. We’d walked a long way into this and were losing heart. Outside the Green Doctors medical marijuana dispensary we were distracted by touts wearing green doctor’s coats, enticing people inside.  Both of us were thinking how can that possibly be legal? when I saw a familiar turbaned figure out of the corner of my eye. He was holding up some of his merchandies, a T-shirt with a print of him on it, to a couple of disinterested tourists. I got Steph’s attention and wordlessly pointed. Like finding the VHS copy of Gift in the op shop, I again had trouble believing the moment was real. Steph took the lead and we marched over to him, telling him we’d come especially to Venice Beach to see him. He accepted this information without seeming overly surprised. I bought a CD and stood not knowing quite how to arrange my face as he sung me a song. He had the same white guitar painted with a red target that he had in the film, and behind it, strapped to his middle, was a tiny Orange amp, through which the tinny sound of his guitar radiated.

We walked back along the boardwalk, talking about Gift. Steph still had her VHS copy of it, although she hadn’t watched it for years. Eventually it will probably be released on DVD, but for the moment I like that it only exists on video tape, like the home movie it always kind of was.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2012 4:31 pm

    Ohhhhhhh…….. And what a score! The hunt was definitely worth it, and you’ve once again sent me down into 90’s world – and a world of memories.

    • Vanessa Berry permalink*
      October 22, 2012 7:42 am

      Thanks Scott – Gift is one of the ultimate 90s objects to me, especially since it remains VHS only!

      • October 22, 2012 8:14 am

        Like yourself, I really like that idea. It is part of the world that it came from.

        I was talking to my partner about the ‘Yob Rock’ scene from Melbourne in the early 90’s, and she seemed a bit.. perplexed. Outside of the context, it probably does seem a bit uncivil now.

  2. October 22, 2012 7:39 am

    I had a similar search a few years back. My task: finding a first year VHS of Star Wars: A New Hope (although, it was just ‘Star Wars’ then). I had multiple first editions of Empire and Jedi, but Star Wars always seemed to elude me. Of course, they could very easily be found on Amazon or eBay, but searching was half the fun.

    After I had eventually stopped looking through EVERY stack of VHS’s everywhere we went, I found it! Leila and I went to the Goodwill at the Lancaster Outlets on a whim. I breezed through the VHS section, finding nothing while she had found a shirt or something of the like. Once we got to the counter, I stood there as she paid for her items and then noticed a small stand with about 20 tapes staked on it. And there it was! I was, honestly, nearly in tears as I handed it to Leila to purchase. God damnit…what an amazing day.

    Congrats on your find. It really is a surreal moment when you finally find that one thing you have been searching for for so long. Amazing.

    • Vanessa Berry permalink*
      October 22, 2012 7:44 am

      It is a great feeling to find something you’ve searched for for so long, thanks for your story. I’m happy to know I’m not the only person who doesn’t go straight to the internet when there’s something I’m looking for!

  3. December 8, 2012 2:33 pm

    I first watched Gift as a teen from a VHS dub someone made me. I fell in love with Casey’s beauty and mostly her facial mannerisms as she spoke as well as vocal habits . It’ s an odd thing to be drawn to, but I can’t explain it. Anyhow, many years later I was told she made jewelry under a label called Lonely Girl and I again started to think about her. Oddly enough, we were both in New York aat the time. Several years later we started to speak and I came to visit and we clicked. Now I am in LA wit this woman that I found so beautiful as a teen. She is an amazing woman; kind, selfless, hard working and brilliant. And everything she does is artful and creative. I am blessed to be with her and if it wasn’t for Gift I would have never met her! Anyhow, the house the ambulance pulls up to in Gift is close to the boardwalk. The salon that did Casey’s braids is as well!

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